Welsh artist Gwen John: Coming out of the shadows
The Welsh artist Gwen John is not as well-known as her other male contemporaries. Fortunately, John is now receiving the recognition due to her talent and skills.
More importantly, while there’s a greater appreciation of John’s work in Wales, this helps to let the rest of the world know of this wonderful artist.
Gwen John: A death in the family
Born on 22 June 1876 in Haverfordwest, Wales, Gwen’s early life was rocked when in 1994, her sickly mother, Augusta– who was encouraging of Gwen and her brother Augustus of their artistic talents– died.
After, the family moved to Tenby in Pembrokeshire, Wales, where the mother’s two sisters ran the household.
During visits to the coast of Tenby, Gwen would make “rapid drawings of beached gulls, shells and fish on stray pieces of paper, or sometimes in the frontispiece of the book she was reading.”
Gwen John: Developing her own style
From 1895 to 1898, Gwen went to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, to study art. It was the only school to allow women students.
Augustus had gone there earlier in 1894. While Gwen was developing her own style, her younger brother was already gaining fame. However, Augustus cared for her sister, who didn’t take of herself well.
In 1898, she traveled to Paris, France where she studied for a while under James McNeill Whistler at his school, Académie Carmen.
She went back to London in 1899 and had her first exhibition at the New English Art Club. Most of her work focused on women, who were unidentified and sat for their portraits with their hands on their laps.
She was not earning a lot and from 1900 to 1901, such that she lived as a squatter in an abandoned building.
Gwen John: Working for her art
Even as she continued to paint, she had to earn money, so she worked as an artist’s model. That’s when she became involved with the 63-year old sculptor Auguste Rodin when she lived in Paris in 1904.
She also met a number of artists, like Matisse, Picasso, Brâncuși, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
She met John Quinn, an American art collector, who became her patron. From 1910 to 1924 when he died, Quinn bought most of her work.
As a perfectionist, she began to do less exhibitions. She gave up painting after 1933.
On 10 September 1939, Gwen wrote her will and moved to Dieppe where she collapsed and was hospitalized. She died on 18 September 1939, having “starved to death,” and was buried in Javal Cemetery.
Gwen John: Obsession with lovers
Gwen loved both men and women, and she was passionate to the point of obsession. She had an affair with Rodin (who had a wife) from 1904 to 1917, and she wrote him thousands of letters as well as stalking him outside his home.
Augustus revealed in his autobiography that Gwen once loved a woman, Elinor. Gwen threatened to kill herself over Elinor if the latter didn’t break off a relationship with a man.
Gwen also loved Véra Oumançoff, the sister-in-law of neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain, who was her neighbor.
However, while their relationship lasted until 1930, Gwen’s obsession with Vera made the latter uncomfortable.
People also loved Gwen passionately; the German painter Ida Gerhardi loved her, though Gwen didn’t love her back.
In one of her letters, Gwen wrote: “”I should like to go and live somewhere where I met nobody I know till I am so strong that people and things could not effect me beyond reason.”